Saddam outfoxes the west again

Why does the US persist in a policy that makes the Iraqi leader stronger, richer and more popular th

A state of war exists between the United States and Iraq. American warplanes patrol the northern and southern skies, and Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries take futile pot-shots at them. The F-16s fire back. Iraq announces, as it did on Monday, the heroic deaths of martyrs who defended the homeland from foreign aggression. The kill ratio cannot be measured since, however many Iraqis die, the number of Americans killed remains zero. Why, most of the world wonders, does the US persist in a battle that divides the international community, wins sympathy for the mass murderer Saddam Hussein and compels more of the world's Muslims to want to shoot American diplomats and tourists?

President Bill Clinton and his administration, like the Republicans before them, insist that their battle is with the Iraqi regime, not the Iraqi people. Washington duly proclaims its intention not to harm Iraq's civilians even as it imposes economic sanctions that malnourish them and leave them without medicines and anaesthetics. It declares it has their interests at heart on every occasion it drops bombs on them. In the four-day aerial barrage before Christmas, at least 68 non-combatant Iraqis died. So far as anyone can tell, Saddam Hussein is still alive. And in this war, brother, the bad guy's winning.

In the eight years since Iraq retreated from occupied Kuwait, the US has repeatedly announced its three objectives: enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions; elimination of Iraq's arms of mass destruction - chemical and biological weapons, long-range delivery systems and nuclear research; and, finally, the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. Yet the US calls on this very regime to obey international law without offering it any incentive to do so. Further, it does not say whether a future Iraqi government would face the same restrictions on its military and economic power.

For eight years, the US has enforced economic sanctions that have starved, impoverished and destroyed the health of the Iraqi people with whom it says it has no quarrel. For eight years, the US has reserved the right to bomb Iraq. Knowing this, Saddam provokes America to generate support for his leadership in the Arab world. For eight years, the US has given money, weapons and training to Iraqi dissidents in the north, who have as little hope of defeating Saddam as they have of uniting their disparate forces. By any measure, the past eight years have constituted a long term of failure. So, what is the fall-back position? Well, more of the same. And if that fails again, well, even more of more of the same.

The only successful aspect of the policy came from the Unscom inspections, however much Saddam's minions impeded and delayed them. On Unscom's own analysis, its inspectors have found and destroyed most of Saddam's stocks. Unscom was fortunate to have received information on weapons programmes from some of their architects. Among these were two of Saddam's sons-in-law, who foolishly returned home from exile in Amman to be murdered for treason. Another was Dr Nassir al-Hindawi, an American-trained microbiologist who turned over to Unscom most of the documents on the germ warfare programme he had himself instigated. Saddam has now arrested Hindawi, another unprotected victim of co-operation with the UN and the US. Others were the Kurds and Shi-ites who worked for the CIA in the northern city of Irbil, where American forces turned a blind eye to their slaughter by the Iraqi army. Only an exceptionally brave Iraqi technician would dare to tell the US or UN what he knows about weapons, so long as the US, which has not even asked to speak to Hindawi, lacks the means or willingness to spare him the torments of Saddam's torture chambers.

The US has repeatedly undermined Unscom's credibility, particularly by permitting one American inspector, Major Scott Ridder, to share his discoveries with the Israelis. This was well beyond Unscom's terms of reference, and the Iraqis reacted accordingly. The US dealt Unscom its death-blow with the four-day pre-Ramadan missile and bomb display. Tariq Aziz, the moustachioed mouthpiece of the regime, predictably announced after the bombardment that the weapons inspectors could not return. What can the US do about it? Bomb again? Sooner or later, someone in Washington will realise that Saddam, who provokes the attacks, needs them. They cost him nothing. The populace in other Arab countries rallies to him, rather than their own leaders, as the champion who faces down the west.

Over eight years, far longer than the UN expected, UN inspectors have significantly reduced Iraq's stores of weapons. Iraq has been unable to obtain a significant supply of military spare parts or to modernise its armed forces. The army, already weakened by the allied onslaught of 1991, is using arms that have become obsolete in the last eight years. The US speaks of containment, but the word has become meaningless. There is nothing to contain. Iraq cannot invade Iran or Kuwait again, because its armed forces are no match for the Iranian army or for the American forces protecting Kuwait.

The Iraqi army, as a threat to world peace, is a spent force. It has reverted to the role which the British created for it in the 1920s: saving the regime in Baghdad from the restive tribes who reject its legitimacy. The Iraqi army was never intended for an offensive mission, of the kind it engaged in when it invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait ten years later. Its primary purpose, as with almost all other Arab armies, was controlling the natives so the rulers could sell cheap oil without hindrance to the west. The Iraqi army's excessively enthusiastic pursuit of its mission followed the precedent set by its British mentors, who introduced the concept of aerial bombardment of civilians to achieve political goals. Indeed, the US and Britain continue that policy today.

"It is not at all clear that Saddam Hussein wants a change," an official in the UN Secretariat said. "The present set-up suits him. It wins him sympathy. He makes money out of sanctions. Periodic bombing improves his political position. He's keeping the US in a state of rage." If America's outrageous conduct is good for Saddam, why doesn't President Clinton adopt some other strategy? If Saddam does not want a change, why should the US serve his interests by pursuing a policy that has failed? It may be that the policy suits Clinton, giving him a place to seem tough and presidential amid his ridiculous scandals. Or it may be, as the UN official speculated, that "the US cannot admit failure".

Unicef reports that sanctions have resulted in the deaths of about 5,000 Iraqi children a month for eight years. Saddam may be as responsible for their deaths as the US, but the US could shift responsibility for the suffering squarely on to Saddam by scrapping the sanctions and enforcing a ban on military supplies. Until then, Iraqi suffering is winning the propaganda war for Saddam at home, in most of the third world, Russia, China and much of Europe.

Meanwhile, is anyone defusing tension in the Middle East, reducing arms levels and preventing the Arabs from arming themselves so that Israel can feel safe at last? Up to a point. Last month, the Gulf state of Qatar staged a trade fair for companies selling the latest in military and police technology to the Arab world. Most of the states that complain about the proliferation of weaponry in the Arab world sent representatives, who did an estimated $800 million-worth of business in tanks, armoured vehicles, assault rifles, surveillance equipment and bullet-proof vests. One popular item was the life-saving jacket worn by Mikhail Gorbachev in the days when he was so respected in his own country that someone might have killed him. No Arab head of state should be without one. American, British, French and German firms were there. So was SIBAT, the military export organisation from Israel. SIBAT was offering, in the words of Middle East Magazine, "unique and low-armoured fighting vehicles and a six-wheeled drive vehicle called Raider with a similarly unique rear pivoting double axle platform able to gain traction in most driving situations . . ." The containment doctrine has been adapted to suit altered circumstances. Israel is no longer an official enemy of most of the Gulf states. American arms manufacturers can no longer persuade the sheikhs to buy their goods, and thus send oil dollars back to America, by dangling the Soviet threat in front of them. So Iraq is a convenient enemy indeed. Did I say the policy was failing? Perhaps not.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis